VĀLMĪKI . Legendary sage and author of the Hindu epic Rāmāyaṇa, Vālmīki also plays a role in the epic itself. The first book of his Rāmāyaṇa tells the story of the invention of poetry by Vālmīki: One day Vālmīki saw a hunter kill the male of a pair of birds making love. Filled with compassion for the birds, the sage spontaneously uttered a curse at the hunter for his cruelty. Vālmīki's words came forth as well-formed, beautiful verse. The sage himself was surprised by his utterance, which was immediately memorized and recited on the spot by his disciple Bharadvāja, who had accompanied him. Later, after Vālmīki returned home, Brahmā, the creator, visited him and asked him to compose the story of the virtuous hero Rāma as outlined by the ṛṣi Narada, using the new meter that Vālmīki had created. Indian literary tradition therefore considers Vālmīki as the first poet (adikavi ) and his Rāmāyaṇa the first poem (adikavya ).
In the seventh book of the epic, Vālmīki is spoken of as a friend of King Daśaratha. Rāma's brother Lakṣmaṇa leaves the pregnant Sītā (Rāma's wife) in Vālmīki 's hermitage. Finally, it is Vālmīki who shelters Sītā, raises her twin sons, and plays the role of reconciler between Rāma and Sītā by testifying publicly to Sītā's purity. In this context, Vālmīki describes himself as a son of Pracetas, which makes him a member of the family of Bhṛgus, an influential lineage of brahmans in ancient India.
A folk legend records that the sage was born out of an "anthill" (Sanskrit, valmīka ) and therefore was called Vālmīki. This legend also records that he was originally a bandit, but some sages, pitying him, taught him the mantra "marā, marā, marā." As he repeated the syllables, they produced the name Rāma, and while he was deeply immersed in meditating on the name of Rāma, ants built anthills around him. This story appears with minor variations in the Skāndapūrāṇa and also in the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa and Ānanda Rāmāyaṇa. Many popular bhakti Rāmāyaṇas, including the Krittivāsa Rāmāyaṇa of Bengal, adopt this story.
Thus, there are two kinds of biographies for Vālmīki. One type describes Vālmīki as a sage-poet born of a high-caste brahman family and endowed with supreme wisdom and the divine sensibilities that made him the creator of poetry, while the other type describes him as a sinner transformed into a saint. The first type of biography is in conformity with the status of the Rāmāyaṇa as the great epic that it is in the Brahmanic tradition. The second type of biography relates to the status of the Rāmāyaṇa as a bhakti poem that transforms its readers from sinners into devotees of the god Rāma. The two types of biographies thus reflect the two major orientations and interpretations of the Rāmāyaṇa in Hindu culture.
Scholars have suggested a historical Vālmīki, who probably was a resident of Kosala (a region of the modern state of Uttar Pradesh) and traveled extensively in North India, though he did not know much of the South. This opinion is based on the textual evidence from the Rāmāyaṇa that gives detailed and geographically correct descriptions of North India, whereas its descriptions of South India are purely fanciful. It is also suggested that Vālmīki was one of the kuśīlava s ("singers, bards") who sang the epic. No firm evidence is available, however, in support of a historical Vālmīki. Tradition holds, however, that Vālmīki is also the author of the medieval work Mahārāmayaṇa, or Jñānavāśiṣṭa, a philosophical text in the form of a dialogue between the sage Vaśiṣṭa and Rāma.
Bulcke, Camille. "The Rāmāyaṇa: Its History and Character." Poona Orientalist 25 (January–October 1960): 36–60.
Goldman, Robert P., trans. The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, vol. 1, Bālakaṇḍa. Princeton, N.J., 1984. See especially the introduction (pp. 3–59).
Velcheru Narayana Rao (1987)